A young, strong man got his first job as a woodcutter at a timber merchant’s logging camp. The pay was good. The rookie woodcutter was determined to do his best.
His employer gave him an axe and showed him the area to work. The first day, the woodcutter felled 18 trees.
“Good for you! Keep it up,” said the employer. Encouraged, the woodcutter slogged hard the next day, but brought down 15 trees. The third day he tried harder, but could cut only 10 trees.
“I must be losing my strength”, the woodcutter thought. He went to his employer and apologized, saying he could not understand what was going on.
“When was the last time you sharpened your axe?” asked the timber merchant perceptively.
The woodcutter was bewildered: “Sharpen? I had no time to sharpen my axe! I have been very busy cutting down trees.”
And then there is the story of two woodcutters. One worked for five years but never got a raise. The other was given a raise within a year of joining work. The old-timer went to the foreman to complain.
The foreman said, “You are still cutting the same number of trees you were cutting five years ago. But that new chap is productive. Maybe he knows something you don’t.”
So the chastened old-timer went to the new employee and asked what made him so effective at work. The other man replied: “After every tree I cut, I take a break for two minutes and sharpen my axe.”
Thus it is that US president Abraham Lincoln once said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Lincoln’s secret was to use sharper tools to get the job done better. He used the axe alogy because he was a skilled woodcutter, so he meant what he said both figuratively and literally.
Inefficient tools waste energy; it makes great sense to spend time finding and cultivating the best tools for the task. There is a difference between working hard like a drudge, or working smart.
This is the value of preparing well. It helps to see clearly if something is worth doing, and then how to go about it in the best possible manner to add lots of value to it. But even if there is no job at hand, preparation helps.
Building up skills, learning and growing, keeping eyes and ears open make the man ready to grab opportunity when it strikes. In the words of Seneca: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
This insight can be applied at many levels. We live in busy times; the world seems always in a rush. But this never-ending activity can be no excuse to forget staying sharp. Or else, we will end up as the failed woodcutter.
It is no waste of time to relax, to read, to think and meditate, to pray. Constant reflection and learning is the key to inner growth. It makes possible an improved worker, a better human being.